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Word of the Week: ‘heatwave’

heatwave 3.jpg

We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘heatwave’.

Temperatures are predicted to reach a fierce 38 degrees this week – and are set to surpass the record for the UK’s hottest day ever in July. And just like the temperature, the word ‘heatwave’ is hot right now. Searches for ‘heatwave UK 2019’, ‘heatwave Europe’ and the ominous ‘is the heatwave coming back’ have all become breakout terms on Google Trends. The word has also been trending on Twitter. Cue a flood of memes depicting our reaction to the heat:


What is the definition of a ‘heatwave’?

‘Heatwave’ as a noun refers to “a continuous spell of abnormally hot weather” or “an extensive slow-moving air mass at a relatively high temperature”.

The definition varies according to country, as it is, of course, relative to usual temperatures. In the UK ‘heatwave’ is reserved for abnormal temperatures lasting over “a period of at least three consecutive days”.

The word ‘heatwave’ was apparently first used to describe a period of excessively hot weather in the 1890s, and prior to this had been used in reference to the solar cycles.

The Urban Dictionary’s results throw up some curveballs. One entry reads: “a well-known DJ from Essex” while another describes a ‘heatwave’ as the literal “wave of heat that hits your face when you open the dishwasher”.

One of the earliest records of prolonged and abnormally hot weather – what would later be called a ‘heatwave’ – was in July 1757 in Europe.

It was the scorching summer of 1858 in London that made ‘heatwave’ history, however, and became known as ‘The Great Stink’. 

Why? Because the extreme heat caused the sewage in the river Thames – used for centuries as a dumping ground for human waste – to ferment and cook in the scorching sun. 

The smell was apparently so unbearable that it led to the much-needed implementation of a modern sewage system. Modern Londoners, all praise The Great Stink.

What do ‘heatwaves’ mean for climate change?

The unnaturally extreme weather has made the effects of climate change ever more apparent. As greenhouse gas concentration increases, ‘heatwaves’ are expected to occur at least every other year. 

Experts at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change have suggested the Met Office start naming ‘heatwavesin the same way winter storms are named – so as to help communicate the severity of the weather to the public. Wondering what on earth you’d name a ‘heatwave’? We could look to the unofficial name of Europe’s 2017 sizzler for inspiration: ‘Lucifer’. 

Read more:

Word of the Week: ‘emoji’

Word of the Week: ‘diplomatic’

Roisin McCormack